Update: 08.12.2017

In a handful of fertile soil, there are more individual organisms than the total number of human beings that have ever existed.

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The International Union of Soil Sciences (IUSS) is the global union of soil scientists. The objectives of the IUSS are to promote all branches of soil science, and to support all soil scientists across the world in the pursuit of their activities. This website provides information for IUSS members and those interested in soil science.

World Soil Information Anniversary Seminar, The Netherlands

World Soil Information (formerly known as ISRIC) is 40 years old. An Anniversary Seminar was held in Wageningen on the 9th March to celebrate past achievements and look to the future. Hosted by the Chairman of the Board, Stein Bie, and the Director, David Dent, and organised by Alfred Hartemink, the seminar was attended by 100 participants from all continents, at least ten of whom had already made their names in soil science at the time of its foundation. At a reception held in the World Soil Museum, three distinguished soil scientists were made Fellows of World Soil Information. These were Luca Montanarella (Italy), Pedro Sanchez (USA), and Johan Bouma (Netherlands).

Six presentations set the scene. Pedro Sanchez (USA) outlined a project for achievement of the Millennium goals in Africa, based on key investments in target villages, with an emphasis on soil fertility. David Dent outlined global soil issues and the role of World Soil Information. Two inescapables over the next 40 years were population growth and land use change. Food production per capita and cereal harvested area had fallen below their peaks in the 1980s, and 40% of world population could not now be fed without synthetic nitrogen. Carlos Cerri (Brazil) reviewed a hot topic in more than one sense, soil organic carbon stocks and carbon sequestration. Some 20% of the increase in radiation-forcing greenhouse gases was due to land use change. Tom Veldkamp (Netherlands) reviewed global land change: deforestation, increase in cropland, and expansion of cities. Humans respond not simply to change but to perceived change. Pressures on the environment, if strong, can lead via the ball-in-cup concept to soil-landscape changes from one stable state to another. Nuhu Hatibu (Kenya) reviewed attempts to improve soil health in semi-arid areas of Africa. Often, the limiting factor to crop yields is not water but nutrients. The final presentation by Hans Hurni (Switzerland) asked, Why do we do so little? Why, for example, have international environmental conventions and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment paid so little attention to soils?

This led up to the important concluding section, an agenda for action. The Chairman, Don Sparks (USA) pointed to a major failure in communication, of scientists to policy-makers. Policy-makers don’t read books, they don’t listen to scientists; they listen to voters. So how can World Soils Information improve on this? As a communicating concept, soil quality had failed. Some suggested soil health might be more successful, others expressed doubts. One suggestion is that institutions, policy-makers and the general public (voters) are rightly concerned about hunger and famine. They respond to the image of a starving child. So why not present soil science in these terms; So you want to avoid famine? That’s our business, call on us!

On future activities, the shortly-forthcoming review of land degradation, based on comparison of satellite imagery over the past ten years, was welcomed. Soil fertility and productivity, and the respective roles of organic methods and fertilizers, would remain a central questions. Soils and human health was receiving greater attention, as was conservation agriculture or land husbandry. In-house discussions following the meeting built upon the ideas mooted at this seminar. We, members of the international soil science community, trust and expect that World Soil Information will make even more productive contributions over the next 40 years!

Anthony Young (UK)

E-mail: anthony.young@land-resources.com